Versailles

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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It’s as though the last 100 years never happened at the Donmar Warehouse. Peter Gill’s elegant new play whisks us back to the aftermath of the First World War, as a cosy middle class family await the final demobilisation of soldiers in January 1919 and the tea rooms of Tunbridge Wells fill up again with cake. Meanwhile, over in Versailles the family’s bright gay liberal son is a British civil servant helping the Allies negotiate the notorious peace treaty with the Germans. ‘To punish the Hun or offer renewal?’ that is the question.

Gill unerringly catches the texture of upper middle class life with its devotion to the Book of Common Prayer, afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches. He shows how these rituals were an invisible hand on politics of the period and handles historical exposition exquisitely – debating tradition, expediency and idealism. He artfully references Imperial expansion in the ‘near East’ for ‘petroleum’, and touches on ‘Mohammedans’ and ‘the Jewish question’. He also connects the use of Christianity as an Imperial lubricant to the use of democracy and self-determination in the same way today.

Yet criticising the wily obduracy of the British establishment and the triumphalist folly that lead to the treaty of Versailles, Gill is steeped in the very idiom he wants to excoriate. His play is a homage to the period – especially George Bernard Shaw. The play is further overlaid with modern precepts and becomes a liberal humanist fantasy peopled with charming but sexually devious Tories, fine strong women and, of course. a couple of handsome gay men who rise above the herd.

But if it’s too good to be true, Gill’s production is also too good not to be admired. Richard Hudson’s design is basically Leighton House – an Arts and Crafts dream of potted plants, Persian rugs and Chinese ceramics. The acting could likewise be sold at Sotheby’s. Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn are sturdy, cut-glass grand dames, while Adrian Lukis is a priceless Tory driven by common sense and enlightened (sexual) self-interest. Gwilym Lee as the heroic civil servant is a paragon of modern virtue. He is kind, wise, passionate and as sexually well-balanced as Tom Hughes, who oozes sexual charisma as the handsome ghost of his secret lover.

Are we any closer to understanding those tragic times? Probably not.

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